Solar Power Information: A Guide to How Solar Power Works

Hanging clothes outside to dry or drawing up the blinds to light up a room. Every day, we do things that inadvertently meet the definition of solar power.

While many people hear “solar power” and think of panels generating power, solar power information and facts go beyond this basic — and old — technology.

The emphasis on green technologies and movement away from fossil fuels means knowing more solar power facts will help keep you an educated consumer. Thankfully, we’re here to help with this primer on solar power facts, listing the benefits of solar power, as well as a full solar power definition. In this guide, we will:

  • Offer solar power information and solar power facts
  • Offer a proper solar power definition
  • Explain how solar power works
  • Dissect solar power pros and cons

But before we go any further, let’s get a good sense of what solar power is and how solar power works.

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More Than Just Light: A Solar Power Definition

When people think of solar power or how solar power works, they often imagine solar panels and photovoltaic cells. That’s because most solar power information focuses on the myriad modern technologies meant to turn sunlight into electricity.

How Solar Power Works

Image Source: Pixabay

But humanity has known the benefits of solar power well before the first solar panels were created. For centuries, the solar power definition meant the sun providing more than just light: the definition of solar power included helping people harvest, dry, and store food or provide light and heat.

It’s one of the lesser-known solar power facts: early solar power meant a “solar oven,” essentially a black box which would cook food when placed in the sun.

But this early technology also illustrated solar power advantages and disadvantages: cloudy days would mean uncooked food. The solar power pros and cons were the same then as now: sun’s monumental energy isn’t, unfortunately, unlimited and constant.

We experience similar solar power pros and cons to this day.

Have you ever stepped outside to soak in some sunlight, to recharge and refresh your mind? Or has that time in the sun left you with a bad sunburn?

Both are nature’s version of the modern solar power definition.

Do you defrost your foods on a sunny windowsill? That also meets the definition of solar power.

Have you hung your clothes out to dry on a sunny day? Do you own a greenhouse or tend to a garden and consider which plants will get more sunlight?

Ever open your curtains to let in sunlight or warm a room? Or get into your blistering-hot car on a summer’s day?

All of those scenarios meet the solar power definition in its pre-modern, low-tech form. An updated solar power definition would read, “transforming the sun’s radiation into an alternative form of energy, including light, heat, electricity, etc.”

For most, this solar power definition just means solar panels, but solar power facts don’t bear this out. The shiny black tiles lining more and more rooftops aren’t the only technology meeting the definition of solar power. Several other technologies harness the power of the sun while still meeting solar power definition.

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Much less solar power information is shared about concentrated solar energy, in which electrical plants use mirrors to increase their ability to harness the sun’s energy. The added heat from this solar power then drives traditional steam turbines.

Instead of a gas or electric hot-water heater, solar heating and cooling systems meet the definition of solar power by using the sun, reducing the need for fossil fuels. The Solar Energy Industries Association shows that these heating and cooling units can become a profitable investment as early as three years after they are installed.

There are also other “passive” forms of solar power. These do not directly turn solar power into power, instead allowing the sun to do its own natural work to affect a change.

For example, placing windows to maximize sunlight meets the definition of solar power and increases energy efficiency.

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Solar Power Facts and the Benefits of Solar Power

It’s only in recent human history that the definition of solar power has expanded. Today, solar power can warm homes, produce electricity, heat water, or even produce extremely high temperatures for solar thermal power plants.

Solar Power Definition

Image Source: Pixabay

These are just some of the modern additions to the definition of solar power. The best-known use of solar power today is photovoltaic devices — or solar cells — which, when put together into groups, create solar panels.

This technology changed the solar power definition to include something practical and immediate. The sun, rather than producing one sort of energy, could now power all or part of a home.

Most solar power information now focuses on this technology. But the solar power facts go back much further: while solar power information has only been spreading in recent years, the technology itself is more than half-a-century old.

Here’s one of the more fascinating solar power facts: the first useable version of solar PV cells came in 1954, created by Bell Telephone company, according to the American Physical Society.

This first, early version used the benefits of solar power for space satellites. Poetically, this first use brought the modern solar power definition a little closer to its origin.

Solar power information and use reached the mainstream when solar cells were installed onto smaller consumer electronics in the 1970s. In less than a decade, solar panels began meeting the fullest solar power definition, powering homes and facilities in remote locations, well off the grid and away from electric plants.

Smaller solar power cells have been installed on calculators and other smaller consumer electronics for decades.

That PV cells are nearly a six-decade old technology is not a well know solar power fact. The solar power definition expanded to full-on commercial and consumer use three decades later, when PV panels were being added onto existing electrical grids.

Those tiny solar cells’ ability to work together stands as one of the most fascinating solar power facts: they can be compounded. A group of smaller solar cells can combine to create the commonly-known panels.

Solar power gathered from panels creates enough electricity to heat or cool a home or even charge your electric car.

These panels still meet the solar power definition they first fulfilled, as remote locations and homes continue to rely on solar technology for power, like they did decades ago.

The panels’ definition of solar power isn’t limited to uses on the ground. Solar power still powers most of the satellites circling our planet.

Gather enough of these panels together and you’ll form a solar array powerful enough to run an average home. A large enough solar array can even power thousands of homes.

A solar cell’s dexterity — it can power anything from keyboards to cities — makes it one of the most useful modern green technologies. It’s also one of the least-known solar power facts.

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How Solar Power Works

While much solar power information focuses on consumer issues, such as cost and the solar power pros and cons, not many people know how this technology works.

Let’s explore how solar power works (without diving into a physics lesson).

Solar Power Pros And Cons

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The basics of how solar power works tells us solar cells convert light into electricity. Some solar cells can even convert artificial light from, say, a bulb, into electricity. But how?

The semiconductor material which makes up solar cells allows photons to dislodge atomic bits called electrons from one end of the panel and send them toward the front, generating current (the well-known DC current, which must then be inverted into alternating current, or AC).

The movement of these electrons creates an imbalance, which generates a voltage charge.

It’s one of the more fascinating solar power facts that all our whirring machines, nuclear reactors, and smoke-creating power plants can be switched out for silent, clean solar arrays.

One of the lesser-known solar power facts: not all solar cells are the same even though they all resemble black squares. Depending on the semiconductor material they’re made from, some solar panels are more efficient than others.

The sun moves across the sky. To increase their efficiency, modern solar panels can even track the sun’s progress across the sky, adding complexity to how solar power works. Even if fixed at a certain angle, solar panels can produce enough energy to meet the modern definition of solar power.

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Solar Power Pros and Cons

Here’s one of the more astounding solar power facts: According to National Geographic, one minute of the sun’s energy creates enough solar power on the Earth to power humanity’s energy needs for a year.

Yet despite all the benefits of solar power, our technology cannot capture even a minuscule fraction of the sun’s potential energy.

The debate around the solar power pros and cons revolves around one solar power fact: depending on where you live, the source of the energy — the sun — is free, plentiful, and reliable.

The potential benefits of solar power depend on the sun’s habits at a given location — how often it appears, with what intensity, and how reliably throughout the year.

Weighing these solar power advantages and disadvantages depends upon the star at the heart of our solar system. For the benefits of solar power to fully materialize, the climate must be reliably sunny, include a clear view of the sun, and space for solar panels.

A cost-benefit analysis offers the best measurement of solar power pros and cons. But the answer isn’t so clear-cut.

A patchwork of incentives and programs unevenly covers the United States.

For example: electricity providers in some states reimburse homeowners who feed leftover solar power back into the grid. You may have seen reports of these homeowners, touting a refund check instead of an electric bill as one of the advantages of solar power.

Over time, this could help recoup the investment into solar technology sooner. But this can’t be included in any discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of solar power unless you live in a state with such refunds.

Thus, all the solar power information provided here won’t give a definitive financial account of the solar power advantages and disadvantages for your specific situation.

Portability can now be added to the tallies when counting solar power pros and cons. Solar technologies have also gone mobile to create portable, all-in-one charging stations and de facto generators.

While handy in a pinch, these solar panels-on-the-go are also prone to the usual reliability issues and are still dependent upon the fickle sun.

But solar power advantages and disadvantages should not only be measured in the micro, but also in the macro. More than one person can experience the benefits of solar power. In fact, the whole planet can.

The solar power pros and cons equation also includes environmental positives. Solar power does not, unlike fossil fuel technologies, produce carbon dioxide.

Solar technology also does not include many of the smog-creating contaminants and pollutants usually released by old-fashioned power plants. This lowers the greenhouse gas output.

But solar power pros and cons aren’t clean-cut environmentally either. The production of solar panels requires the use of harmful and toxic materials.

When weighing solar power pros and cons, it’s also important to remember that solar panels consume a lot of land.

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Using the sun’s energy is a basic ingredient for life. From photosynthesis to heat, nature already settled the debate over solar power pros and cons.

As humans, we’re still discovering the solar power advantages and disadvantages. The evolution from those early agricultural days to today hasn’t changed our relationship to solar energy too much. We still have to decipher how solar power works to decide the solar power pros and cons.

Fortunately, the sun always seems to offer more than we’ll ever need.

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